Direct marketing is better than it has ever been - but it's got a long way to go says Stan Rapp. The future lies in creating a real relationship with customers. Robert Dwek reports.
He came, he saw, he reminisced. US direct marketing guru Stan Rapp was blown into London last month by the winds of change. The first thing he did was remind the packed room of direct marketers at the UK industry's seventh annual seminar on database marketing just how far they, and he, had come.
"I remember very well when I spoke here in 1986. Five people were there in the first row. And all the rest of the seats were empty." Rapp, founder of New York-based agency network Rapp & Collins, then cast his mind even further back and told the younger members of the audience: "You have no idea what it was like to be a direct marketer 30 years ago." Clearly, a painful memory.
The second thing he did was to tell his audience they're going to have more, and faster. The company-customer relationship has to switch from monologue to dialogue, and that's going to be far more difficult than many marketers realise.
"Everywhere they are going direct, reaching out to the end-user, reaching out to the distribution channel, interacting, listening, learning and then presenting the new kind of marketing." This represents a fundamental shift from "telling and selling" to communicating and sharing.
This is why there are now 2000 supermarkets in the US using a new smartcard machine, VisionValue - which tailors money-off promotions to individual shoppers. "For 40 years I went to the supermarket and I was unknown, I was a stale statistic." There has been, "a turnaround from the unknown prospect and customer to the known prospect and customer."
General Motors gets its foot in the door
The direct approach has now been embraced by the biggest of them all, General Motors, which has launched its own credit card (in the US). It offers much more preferential terms than a bank-provided credit card. But it's worth subsidising because "every month GM will be able to get into ten million homes and ask: how many miles did you drive, what did you like about the car, what don't you like about it?
"GM is going to use direct marketing to lead it out of the mess it's in. The decision to launch this card was not made by a marketing manager or a chief executive. It was made by the board of directors. That's how important direct marketing is to GM."
Rapp applauded similar initiatives from Sears (the "Discover" card has 41 million users), AT&T (its two-year old chargecard is owned by 11 million customers) and General Electric. …